Comedy character actor
Tuesday 12 December 2006
Ronald George Stevens, actor: born London 2 September 1925; married 1963 Ann Bristow (deceased; one son, and one son deceased); died Northwood, Middlesex 11 November 2006.
The comic actor Ronnie Stevens was singularly unlucky in that his success on stage, in "intimate" revues that bridged the gap between stand-up and character comedy, did not translate into wider stardom. Instead, he became the kind of face, in supporting roles where he was perfectly cast as enthusiastic but ineffectual characters, that audiences recognised and welcomed, but would have struggled to put a name to.
Although sometimes cast as an establishment type, Stevens was from Peckham and his father had been a bus driver. Following wartime service in the RAF, he trained at Rada. He first came to notice in such revues as High Spirits (1953), Intimacy at 8.30 (1954) and For Amusement Only (1956), at a succession of West End venues.
Rendered obsolete by Beyond the Fringe and the eventual proliferation of sketch comedy on television, these shows, once described by Alan Bennett as "the sort where people came on dressed as garden gnomes", and loaded with theatrical in-jokes, were nevertheless highly popular with their chosen audience, who took them to represent sophistication. One sketch featured Stevens impersonating Liberace, singing of his fan letters, "At least one or two are from girls." When called as a witness in the pianist's infamous 1959 libel case against the Daily Mirror for suggesting he was gay, Stevens denied the number had any deeper implications.
His first television series as a regular was Dick and the Duchess (1957-58), a comedy thriller made in Britain but for the CBS network, in which he conformed to American notions of Englishness. Only three episodes exist today. He was better suited to New Look (1958-59), an ATV sketch show created as a showcase for new talent, whose other regulars included Bruce Forsyth, Joyce Blair and Roy Castle.
For a while, Stevens was one of the ever-present army of character players in British comedy movies, but attempts to promote him from cameos to co- starring roles were not successful. He and Bob Monkhouse (another witness in the Liberace case) played mischievous dental students with larcenous leanings, in Dentist in the Chair (1960), intended as the start of a series to rival the Carry Ons. However, the second of these, Dentist on the Job (1961), was also the last. Stevens did not acquit himself well, in the comic-relief role of a virginal, incompetent British Intelligence man, in Some Girls Do (1969), an attempt to revive Bulldog Drummond (Richard Johnson) in the manner of James Bond.
Consistently cast as waiters, hairdressers and harassed hotel employees, Stevens supported in three in the same series, Doctor at Large (1957), Doctor in Love (1960) and Doctor in Distress (1963). He gave an overly eager tour of a sweet factory in I'm All Right Jack (1959). In Raising the Wind (1961), from the Carry On stable, he crossed verbal swords with his fellow revue star Kenneth Williams; in his diaries, Williams wrote of "Ronnie Stevens whom I abhor . . . rather colourless & suburban but harmless . . . [Stevens's scene] failed completely. Not an ounce of humour left in it." The occasion was on the set of Carry On Cruising (1962), Stevens's only Carry On appearance.
Like Williams, however, he made records of children's stories, and lent his voice to similar television programmes, such as Oliver Postgate's much-loved The Saga of Noggin the Nog (1963) for the BBC, returning for a 1982 revival in colour. Space Patrol (1963) was an ITV puppet series, often mistakenly assumed to have been a Gerry Anderson production. Stevens provided the voices for an eccentric professor, a puny Venusian and a rugged Martian.
In Australia in the late 1960s, Stevens was a regular on The Mavis Bramston Show, best described as a would-be Antipodean That Was the Week That Was.
Two ambitious BBC projects, 20 years apart, provided him with more dramatic opportunities than usual. He was a poetic butterfly in Capek's allegory The Insect Play (1960), under the Twentieth Century Theatre banner, and was well cast as Andrew Aguecheek in Twelfth Night (1980), part of the BBC's Shakespeare marathon. Surprisingly, perhaps, he helped form the egalitarian, classically inclined stage troupe the Actors' Company in the 1970s, with Sir Ian McKellen and Edward Petherbridge.
Stevens's television guest appearances included a maudlin window dresser in The Avengers (1965), a judge in Rumpole of the Bailey (1991) and a government minister in The Goodies (1971). He supported in Arthur Lowe's final sitcom, A.J. Wentworth, BA (1982), not shown until after Lowe's death and generally felt not to have been in the Dad's Army class. Later appearances came in such gentle fare as May to December (1989-94) and As Time Goes By (2002).
Along with many of his peers, he was unable to escape the "British sex comedy" genre of the 1970s; fortunately for the cast of All I Want is You . . . And You . . . And You (1974), which also included Koo Stark, no copies are known to exist.
Arguably, Morons from Outer Space (1985) was no better, but Stevens did have one notable late credit, as one of the judges in the climactic concert in Brassed Off (1996).
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